Security and Defense: First come sanctions. And then...?

What would Israel do should sanctions fail to stop Iran's nuclear program?

April 30, 2010 16:05
Barak speaks at Pentagon

Barak Pentagon 311. (photo credit: AP)

Washington went out of its way this week for Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In the US for routine high-level talks, Barak was met with open arms wherever he went.

At the White House on Monday, during a meeting with National Security Adviser James Jones, President Barack Obama popped his head in to say hello, stayed a few minutes and declared his administration’s commitment to Israeli security. At the State Department the next day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Barak her friend, saying: “I have known the defense minister for more years than I care to remember. We were both very young, Ehud.” In response, Barak said: “[Since] immediately after your bat mitzva,” to the laughter from the crowd.

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Later Tuesday, Barak made his way to the Pentagon for a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, an old friend whom he has known since Gates was director of the CIA in the early 1990s, and he himself was chief of General Staff.

In an unusual and rare move for the Pentagon, Gates and Barak held a joint press conference following their meeting, which focused on a wide range of issues, including Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, the peace process and IDF procurement plans.

The increase in pleasantries had a twofold purpose. Firstly, Barak is perceived in Washington as the member of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition who is most in line with the Obama administration’s current thinking, both on the Palestinian and Iranian issues.

In addition, the administration seemed to feel that it had to make up for the way the media portrayed Obama’s treatment of Netanyahu during his visit in March. This time around, the top Israeli official in town was showered with love.

AT THE same time, however, there are vast differences between Jerusalem and Washington on Iran and the Palestinian issue. While there seems to be some progress in getting the Palestinian Authority to return to the negotiating table, on Iran Israel is growing increasingly frustrated with the continuous delay in getting the next round of sanctions imposed.

Behind the scenes is a fundamental disagreement between the two governments not only regarding the nature of the sanctions that need to be imposed – Israel wants sanctions on the energy sector, while the US is concerned that will hurt the average Iranian – but also about what the next step will be if the sanctions fail. The new target date for sanctions appears to be in June, after Lebanon finishes as the rotating president of the UN Security Council.

The status of Iran’s nuclear program, once a source of disagreement, is similarly understood today by both countries’ intelligence services, as demonstrated by the CIA report released in late March which stated that Iran could, if it wants, begin developing nuclear weapons.

This is very similar to Military Intelligence’s assessment of Iran’s current nuclear standing. When Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin took command of Military Intelligence in 2005, the assessment was that the moment Iran obtained enough low-enriched uranium to extract the required amount of high-enriched uranium to make a bomb it would do so.

About two years ago the assessment changed and, like the US, Israel now believes that what is delaying an Iranian nuclear weapon is a political decision that needs to be made by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran already has two tons, which is more than enough for one nuclear bomb.

The current assessment is that the Iranians are waiting to increase their stockpile by several more tons so they will have enough for several bombs. Once that happens, they will likely then wait for a window of opportunity when the international community is too weak to do anything to stop them.

The difference between Israel and the US mainly comes down to what needs to be done after the next round of sanctions. While Israeli military and government officials are skeptical about the effectiveness of the planned sanctions, the government is backing them for the moment.

Barak emphasized this during his joint press conference with Gates, when he said: “The time is clearly, at this stage, time for sanctions and diplomacy.”

His next statement, however, illustrated the difference between Israel and the US: “We expect the sanctions to be effective and to be limited in time, so we will be able to judge to whether – what kind of results stem from the sanctions regime.”

So what will happen next? According to a recent article in The New York Times, Gates wrote a secret three-page memorandum to Jones in which he lamented the lack of a detailed US long-range strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Following the disturbing report were a number of comments by top American officials which seemed to indicate that a military strike was not in the cards.

First there was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who said: “I worry, on the other hand, about striking Iran... I’ve been very public about that because of the unintended consequences of that.”

Next was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, the number two official at the Pentagon, who said in Singapore that a military strike against Iran is currently not on the table. “Military force is an option of last resort,” Flournoy said. “It’s off the table in the near term.”

The main US opponent of a military strike is perceived by some insiders here to be Gates himself, who has succeeded in getting Obama on board. The problem, from an Israeli perspective, is that if the Iranians believe a military strike is not a realistic option, there is really not much of a chance that sanctions will work.

On the other hand, even if Israel decides to attack, there are still many considerations beyond just the feasibility and effectiveness of a potential strike. There are questions of how Israel would fly to Iran and whether it will have approval from the US to fly over Iraq. There are also questions of how far back the IDF is capable of pushing the Iranian nuclear program.

But what about the day after the strike? Will Israel have American support or find itself isolated as it was following the bombing of the Osirak reactor in 1981?

The main difference is that today, there is no doubt that following a strike on Iran, Israel will be attacked by Hizbullah, Hamas, Iran and possibly even Syria. Israel will likely then need assistance, such as arms shipments, like it received from the US during the Second Lebanon War. The question is whether there will be someone in Washington willing to send them.

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